The story behind La Terraza Rum and Lounge is almost as compelling as what's served there. The new Venezuelan restaurant is owned by chef Carlos Valdivieso and Ana Lara, a husband-wife team who owned a restaurant in Caracas and now anchor the kitchen at La Terraza.
Ana is beginning to learn some restaurant-oriented English. Carlos, not so much. But no worries, because the front of the house is run by Armando Bolanos, Ana's son, and his wife, Sarah. Armando came to Little Rock as a high school exchange student and never left. He met Sarah, a Little Rock native, here, and his mother and stepfather followed to try their hand as Little Rock restaurateurs — and to be closer to their 2-year-old granddaughter and their second grandchild, who is a few months from being born.
Most Little Rock diners are familiar with the space in which La Terraza opened Oct. 17, the former Acadia in the heart of Hillcrest. Heaters and a stash of blankets are designed to keep the fabulous, multilevel deck in operation during colder months, and the smallish dining room has been brightened by colorful, textured, paint-splattered art.
The large wraparound bar and all the tables were packed at 7 p.m. on a recent Friday, the first really jam-packed night, our friendly waitress told us. The staff was stretched thin and seemed a tad frantic, but service remained good, and our food was not delayed.
We started with beef tenderloin carpaccio ($13), rare, razor-thin beef topped with almost equally thin white mushroom medallions, shredded Parmesan and a basil aioli that was lightly applied. We loved it ... but not as much as we loved the amazing French onion soup ($9). The sheen of the broth promised it would be rich and indeed it was, with its inclusion of cream, not the norm. The onions were really sweet, and we were glad there wasn't the usual thick cheese blanket. But cheese still played into the soup, primarily atop two squares of toasted baguettes that floated on top.
This soup proves the menu is eclectic, with not everything screaming "Venezuela!" — the Fettucine a la Rotonda ($20), for example. It was a bit thicker than usual and cooked perfectly al dente. The menu says it's finished tableside in a wheel of Parmesan, but ours came from the kitchen already finished. Shards of bacon, Parmesan and butter, not cream, provide the bulk of the flavor, and a large pool of butter remained in the bottom of our otherwise empty bowl.
We were told Pabellon ($16), a shredded beef, is the national dish of Venezuela, so we felt compelled to try it. The beef looks like pulled pork, and while it was decent, it was not that distinctive. But we adored the sides — plantain, sliced thin, cooked soft and very sweet, with black beans and rice. Black beans are often boring, but not these. We were told the dish starts with a variety of herbs and other vegetables that are cooked with the beans, and the result tasted more like black bean soup.
We returned the next day for lunch, and 16 hours after our first visit the place was almost empty — probably just as well, as Sarah and Armando still seemed a bit shell-shocked after La Terraza's crazy Friday night. Both were very gracious to this solo diner — Armando even shared a sample of the best mojito we've ever tasted.
We were back primarily to try the arepas ($8), a thin, cornmeal-based bread that is sliced and filled like a sandwich, a Venezuelan staple. La Terraza makes the bread — like everything, actually — from scratch, and diners can choose pork, beef, chicken or turkey and Manchego as fillings. We opted for the thin-sliced, succulent pernil (pork) and loved it; the cornbread was light, crisp and flavorful, and those fabulous plantain slices and black beans accompanied.
We hadn't had time for dessert the night before and were glad we came back for the Quesillo ($5), three cubes of dense, smooth custard that in texture straddled the custard/cheesecake line. Drizzled with caramel, it was sweet and tasty.
La Terraza seems on the right track — benefiting from a dynamic, helpful staff supporting an experienced Venezuelan husband-wife team that is cranking out excellent food in a setting familiar to loyal Hillcresters.
La Terraza Rum and Lounge
3000 Kavanaugh Blvd.
Any place that has "rum" in its name should back that up, and La Terraza does — with a broad selection of top-shelf rums and also the best mojito we've tasted, primarily because it's not too sweet.
11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday (kitchen open until 10:30 p.m.); 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
Credit cards accepted, full bar.